Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Mallory Ortberg: Good morning, everyone. May this week bring more “Temba, his arms wide” and less “Shaka, when the walls fell.” Let us together be as Darmok and Jalad on the ocean.
Q. Is it cheating?: My wife of five years and I have a wonderful marriage, and I am madly in love with her. The one problem is that I have a particular fetish that she is not aware of and I can’t indulge with her: I like to masturbate with other men. No touching, no kissing, just masturbating together either in person or via webcam. This is completely independent from our sex life, which is satisfactory, if vanilla. I don’t do it often, and when I do, I don’t give any identifying information or invite anyone to our home. I internally justify it by telling myself that it’s not something I can do with her anyway, and masturbating by myself isn’t cheating, so why does it matter if someone else is there? This is crazy, isn’t it? I either need to tell her and hope for her unlikely blessing or knock it out and keep it as a fantasy like any other person in a committed, monogamous relationship, right?
A: I think you know this is a form of cheating, which is why you’re writing to me. This isn’t an issue of what porn you watch or what fantasies get you off—it’s about sharing a particular form of sex and intimacy with people who aren’t your wife without her knowledge, and it’s a betrayal of the monogamous commitment she believes you two have. What you want—a mostly monogamous relationship with a woman and periodic jerk-off sessions with other men—isn’t “crazy.” The hiding and the lying are what’s wrong, not the desire itself. Had you brought this desire up sooner in your relationship, she might have happily indulged your relatively low-risk interest. Or she might have found it unacceptable. Either way, she has the right to make that decision for herself. The desire by itself is perfectly understandable, and many people would be open-minded or even enthusiastic about the arrangement you’ve described. But you ought to tell your wife and accept whatever fallout your revelation brings. If you two can eventually find your way to a similar arrangement again someday with your wife’s full knowledge, forgiveness, and blessing, so much the better; if not, you should be honest with future partners about what you want before you start doing it.
Q. To date or not to date?: I am a 38-year-old single professional woman who was recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer and will be starting chemo soon. My previous boyfriend and I broke up last October (we dated for six months), and I would like to start dating again. I feel that because I will be going through this sickness, it wouldn’t be fair to involve a man that I’m just getting to know in all of this, but I would also hate to put this part of my life on hold for however long this goes on. Even though I’m sick, I feel good and want to live my life. If I do decide to date someone, should I bring up my situation early in conversation or before the first date or wait until the second or third?
A: There’s no strict rule of etiquette here, although I wish I could give you a really clear maxim like, “Tell everyone on the third date after drinks but before dinner.” You’re not asking these guys to accompany you to chemo treatments; you’re trying to have a normal dating life while managing your cancer. It may be that some guys decide to bail whether you bring it up right away or wait until the second or third date to say something. That most likely cannot be helped. You have no moral obligation to disclose, so be guided only by your sense of when you feel ready, whether that’s right away or after you’ve already been out on one or two dates.
Q. Should I tell my friend about her husband’s pot habit?: My best childhood friend married a boy she met through me in high school. I am closer to her but friends with both. He smokes pot. I knew he was hiding it and told him if she asked me outright I wouldn’t lie, but I didn’t see it as my place to “tattle” on him, and I don’t personally think it’s a big deal. I still don’t, except she got busted spending a lot more on a craft hobby than they agreed upon. Since his discovery, he’s finagled a motorcycle and various things out of her guilt. He lost a job a few years ago due to a failed drug test and lied to her about the reason, and was still spending $60–80 a week on pot while unemployed while she was working overtime to make up for it. I’m uncomfortable with it but still didn’t see it as my place to get involved. I found out recently that he’s using her “dishonesty about finances” to accuse her of having an affair. She’s clearly feeling guilty about it, and it’s really bothering me that he’s throwing something in her face when he’s been doing the same thing for years. To clarify: I know for a fact she’s not cheating, and yes, I know for a fact she’s unaware of his habit. Should I tell her?
A: I think in the future you should involve yourself less in your friends’ unhappy marriage. They’ve both been dishonest and suspicious of one another, and made a habit out of keeping weird hobby-related secrets from one another, and the only way they can rebuild trust (or decide that’s not possible and separate) is together. That said, the information he’s keeping from her—that he was fired for failing a drug test—has negatively affected her financial security and is presumably something you yourself would want to know, were you in her situation. You never asked her husband to share this secret with you, and he knew the risk he was running by telling you and not his wife. If you do tell her, and I’m inclined to think you should, bear in mind that their marriage has plenty of problems beside this one, and that whatever they decide to do, you should keep your distance. If either of them attempts to take you into their confidence about something they should instead be telling one another, say exactly that: “Please tell your husband/wife this instead of me. I’m not the person who needs to know this information.”
Dear Prudie: My religion is opposed to homosexuality, but I haven’t told my queer friends I disapprove of their lifestyles.
Hear more Prudence at Slate.com/Prudiepod.
Q. Screamingly bad example: My mother-in-law is a screamer in two ways: Her habitual volume is loud, and she often viciously yells and screams in anger at her adult children. The former is annoying but not anything I would ever address with her. The latter I’ve always considered to be between her and her children, and I’m not sure any of them consciously hear it for what it is anyway. But now we have a child who’s learning to talk. I’m not OK with the example his grandmother is setting. How do we teach him not to yell and scream to get his way when his grandmother does exactly that? How do we convey that it’s not OK to treat people as he will see his grandmother treating his father and uncles? Or, on the flip side, how do we get her not to do that in front of him when she would likely scream at my husband for the disrespect of asking her to tone it down? I have a feeling we’re going to need to address both sides of this—what to say to our son and what to say to my mother-in-law—and I’m at a loss on both.
A: If you believe your mother-in-law would scream at her own child for asking her not to scream at her own grandchild, then this is a conversation that’s long overdue. Because you’ve turned a blind eye to her bad behavior in the past, it may feel more than a little uncomfortable to draw a line now, but the conversations you’re about to have are, fortunately, pretty simple: “Grandma, we love you and we want you to get to spend time with Grandson, but we can’t allow you to yell or scream at him, or at other adults who might be with him. He’s a little child, and we want him to feel safe and loved, as well as to teach him how to use his words appropriately when he’s upset.”
If she responds to this reasonable request by screaming and yelling, stay calm and tell her you’ll be happy to schedule some grandma-grandson time when she’s able to speak rationally. Then end the conversation and do exactly that. You’re getting the opportunity to parent upward as well as downward. Treat her tantrums the same way you would your son’s. You don’t have to argue with her about it. This isn’t a conversation. This a hard limit—she needs to be able to treat your child with basic civility and respect, otherwise she won’t be able to spend time with him. If she agrees to your terms, let her know that you’ll give her a warning when she starts to raise her voice or lash out, and if she can’t bring herself under control, you’ll end the interaction. This will feel difficult, especially since you haven’t set limits with her before, but it’s your only bargaining chip. Either she’ll seek help in altering her behavior or she’ll see a lot less of her grandson.
As for your son, tell him that it’s not OK to scream at people and that even some adults—like his grandmother—have a difficult time behaving appropriately. He’ll learn this lesson best by watching what you do as well as what you say. If you back down and let his grandmother go on her tirades unchecked, he’ll instead learn that people who are willing to yell and scream and wear down the people around them always ending up getting what they want.
Q. Love is in the air: My fiancé and I used to have a solemn pact not to pass gas in front of each other to keep the romance alive. A distressing encounter with a very bean-and-cheese heavy meal ruptured that peace. It is now a farting free-for-all. I don’t mind, because (1) farts are hilarious, (2) a lifetime of holding it in is not sustainable, and (3) farts are hilarious. My fiancé has made a half-hearted plea to return to our prior modest ways. Do I have to try? Or do I wait until it’s a real ask to modify my ways? Not that it matters, but we are two dudes, thus eliminating the gender-based dynamic that might emerge around making wind.
A: Your partner has made a half-hearted plea, so make a half-hearted attempt. There’s a balance to be struck between a lifetime of repression and living out that campfire scene from Blazing Saddles; attempt to find it.
Q. Re: Screamingly bad example: One thought—does she need her hearing checked?
A: It doesn’t sound like her customary high volume is the problem, but the fact that she regularly screams in anger at her adult children. Whether or not she’s hard of hearing, the real issue is how she expresses anger. It might be worth encouraging her to get it checked out, of course, but that won’t address the most pressing problem.
Q. Wedding etiquette: My husband has been invited to two separate weddings recently. The first wedding was casual and informal, and the second is a formal and destination affair. I was not invited to either. The first wedding he has already attended without me and only told me he was going to the wedding the morning of. The second wedding the invitation only has his name on it. I met both couples through my husband, and he socializes with them a lot more than I do. I am pretty friendly with the first wedding couple, but I do not know the second wedding couple very well. Is it normal to invite one spouse and not the other? Even if I could not attend either wedding (which they are not aware of), I find it odd not to extend an invitation. Am I wrong? Is my husband wrong to accept an invite without me? I want to bring it up to him, but if this is some new normal wedding etiquette, I will let it be.
A: It’s not normal! Generally speaking, guests with spouses or long-term partners are always invited as a couple. Your husband can, if he’s close with the couple, say, “I got an invitation but noticed my wife’s name was left off, so I wanted to check in with you before RSVPing.” Then you two can decide what you’d prefer. Some people are offended at the idea of being invited to a wedding without their partner, and others don’t mind in the least, especially if the partner in question isn’t friends with the bride and groom. If you’d rather he not go without you, feel free to tell him about your discomfort.
Q. Follow-up to a recent column: You responded to my question a while ago about how to deal with a grandmother who knows I’m gay but won’t stop asking when I’m going to find a girlfriend and get married. I wanted to follow up and let you know that I took your advice; she inevitably asked again, but this time, instead of giving her an excuse, I told her I was gay and wouldn’t be finding a girlfriend any time soon. She got upset, but she didn’t die, and the world didn’t end either. I feel better having spoken up for myself, and hopefully this’ll put an end to all the questions. Thank you for your advice!
Q. Hugging woes: I don’t like being hugged, and it’s only getting worse as I get older. Problem is, seemingly everyone is a hugger. For politeness’ sake, I usually just swallow my discomfort and allow it, but I am an adult and am starting to feel like there’s no time like the present to start getting to decide what is and isn’t done with my body. Trouble is, how do I communicate this in a way that doesn’t make the hugger feel bad? Especially if I have allowed it in the past? Especially (ugh, ugh) with relatives that have hugged me since I was a child? Should I just suck it up?
A: If it’s someone you don’t know well, feel free to say, “I’m not a hugger,” and offer a friendly handshake. If you want to change protocol with someone you know and care for, you can offer a bit more context. Say, “I feel a little vulnerable bringing this up, because I haven’t mentioned it before, but I really don’t like hugging, and I’d much prefer to shake hands [or whatever other gesture you like] when we see one another. Please know that I love getting to see you, and you haven’t done anything wrong, but I just don’t like hugging and I’d much rather not do it. I appreciate your bearing with me.” It’s a perfectly appropriate request, and hopefully the people who care about you will be more than happy to adapt. The point of hugging ought to be making the huggee feel welcomed, cared-for, and comfortable, not just mashing your torsos together. Even the most pro-hugging person alive should (hopefully!) not want to hug someone if it means making them feel tense and uncomfortable.